a woman teaches a group of children as she holds a poster that says "healthy relationships"
Zephira Derblich-Milea of Shalom Bayit speaks to youth professionals at Jewish LearningWorks about consent and sex ed. (Photo/Kait Miller)

How are Jewish schools teaching sex education in the era of #MeToo?

Ivy Chen, who teaches a puberty education class at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, has a pretty simple way of explaining consent to kids, but she needs some help from Biscuit, her fluffy Pomeranian. She brings him to class and he’s so cute that everyone wants to pet him, but, as she tells the kids, “You should always ask first.”

“Consent isn’t just about sex,” she said to J. “It’s about agency over your own body.”

The importance of teaching children how to have healthy and respectful relationships — sexual or otherwise — is something that Bay Area Jewish schools and organizations have been focused on for a long time. But it’s been given new urgency by recent developments, from the “Access Hollywood” tape that came to light during the 2016 presidential campaign, to the #MeToo movement sparked by allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, to the September hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in which he was accused of sexual assault.

“This moment did change something for us,” said Jennifer Franklin, dean of middle school at Brandeis Marin in San Rafael. “It probably will have a lasting impact.”

While sex education just a few years ago focused mainly on biology, today children are learning a lot more, from why middle-school boys get so many erections to how to tell a friend that no, you don’t want a hug. That’s why now it’s sometimes called “puberty education,” sometimes “consent education” and sometimes “relationship education.” But whatever the name, it’s a modern kind of sex ed that Jewish schools and youth groups in the Bay Area are embracing.

Ivy Chen with Biscuit the consent dog
Ivy Chen with Biscuit the consent dog

“In the Jewish community, it’s happening more and more,” said Zephira Derblich-Milea, youth program manager at Shalom Bayit.

The Berkeley-based organization is known for its work against domestic violence, but its youth curriculum, “Love Shouldn’t Hurt,” is designed to help young people avoid unhealthy relationships to begin with. And the program’s manager, Derblich-Milea, is known in the Bay Area Jewish community as an excellent teacher of consent — making sure that kids know how to both ask for consent and hear a “no,” whether it’s during friendship, a casual date or a sexual relationship.

And they do need help, she said. “If you watch every movie ever, you will not learn how to ask [for consent],” she said.

It’s different at every age. For younger kids, consent is about understanding to listen to friends if they don’t want a hug, while for high schoolers, consent education might include how to navigate new relationships, sexual or otherwise. In college, it means walking through questions like how to ask for consent to kiss a boy or girl at a party when it’s loud and dark, and how to interpret people’s replies.

“There’s like, ‘Sure,’ which is unenthusiastic, and we should be able to see through that,” said Sarah Sabin, 20, a student at UC Berkeley. “I know that’s not true consent.”

Sarah Sabin
Sarah Sabin

Sabin is part of a Berkeley Hillel fellowship for women called Crafting Consent; lasting for the full school year, the program uses the Shalom Bayit curriculum and facilitators to explore “issues of consent” in contemporary society.

“I think the issue of sexual assault became really, really important to me once I came to college,” Sabin added.

Crafting Consent participants meet once a week, and also go to Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity, to help run Title IX-mandated workshops on preventing sexual violence. Sexual harassment on campus is still a problem, Sabin said, and a recent op-ed in the Daily Californian student-run newspaper described sexual encounters at Alpha Epsilon Pi being recorded without permission, along with misogynistic comments.

“These things shouldn’t be expected,” Sabin said. “You shouldn’t have to do anything physical that you don’t want to.”

Sabin thinks college students definitely need more education — especially the young men. The Crafting Consent program right now has about seven to 10 women in the class, Sabin said, and while they need to learn about consent, too, “I can’t say confidently that the guys are getting this much [information],” she said.

According to many educators, the answer may be in starting the education process at a younger age — even in preschool.

Torrey Mandell Freeman of Palo Alto’s Parents Place, a family resource center under the auspices of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, addresses those topics for parents of preschoolers with a seminar called “Boundaries, Bodies and Where Babies Come From.”

Torrey Mandell
Torrey Mandell

“It still is important to start these conversations young because this is where the foundation is built,” she said.

And in Berkeley last month, as part of a series of parenting and relationship lectures, Gan Shalom preschool hosted a talk about boundaries. It was part of an initiative set up by four Jewish preschools in Berkeley — Gan Shalom (of Congregation Beth Israel), Netivot Shalom, Congregation Beth El and the JCC of the East Bay — called “Cultivating Kavod: How to Take Care of Your Child, Family and Yourself.”

Gan Shalom director Beatrice Balfour and Derblich-Milea are also producing a video series for the general public on some of the topics the workshop covered, like not asking a child a yes-or-no question if “no” is not an option (when you need them to buckle their seatbelt in a car, for example). It’s an approach to consent that touches on a range of situations.

“It’s a wider approach, which is why we can do that kind of work in preschools,” Balfour said.

Chen agreed. Like Derblich-Milea and Mandell Freeman, the sexuality health educator said respecting young children’s boundaries is important.

“Don’t force your kids in a hug or a kiss with a relative if they don’t want to, because that sends the wrong message,” said Chen, who has 22 years of experience.

She also thinks starting young is a good idea because consent is not something that teenagers should be hearing about for the first time in high school — although that’s better than nothing.

“It’s never too late,” she said. “But it should have been earlier.”

Sabin said she didn’t really hear about consent in an institutional setting until she started at UC Berkeley.

“I really honestly can’t remember anything like that in high school,” she said.

Making sure that experience doesn’t repeat is why Contra Costa Midrasha, a program for Jewish teens in grades 8 through 12, has implemented classes using the Shalom Bayit curriculum. Devra Aarons, Contra Costa Midrasha’s executive director, said the way Shalom Bayit uses Jewish texts as a basis to examine issues of consent is an important part of the process.

For example, the students could look at the well-known quote from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Then teens pair off to talk about what those words say about relationships, both with others and with their own selves.

“I actually think that Judaism has a lot of wisdom to teach our teens about sex,” Aarons said.

While the approach to sex and consent education in the Bay Area Jewish community might be at the forefront of how to approach relationships, the rest of California appears to be playing catch-up.

It’s a wider approach, which is why we can do that kind of work in preschools.

The California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in January 2016, requires school districts to provide students with “accurate and inclusive” sexual health education and HIV prevention education, once in middle school and once in high school. California schools aren’t allowed to teach that abstinence is the only way to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, although they can promote abstinence along with other information about how to have “safe sex.” There is also a healthy relationships curriculum focused on communication, and the law requires that students see examples of queer healthy relationships alongside straight ones. That’s a change for schools.

“One of the biggest [changes] is a shift to being more inclusive around LGBTQ identity,” said Ronit Matabuena-Lev, an independent sex educator in the Bay Area. She teaches workshops for preschool through fourth grade, tweens, teens and young adults that meet the state requirements.

There has been pushback to some of the new sex ed programs in public school districts, including in Fremont, Cupertino and Palo Alto, but in general the law is encouraging the kind of balanced education that Jewish kids often are already receiving in private schools or Jewish youth groups.

For students at the Brandeis School of San Francisco, information about sexuality, relationships and consent comes from sex educator Kate Bedford, who is also a parent. Irit Daly, who has an eighth-grade daughter at Brandeis of S.F. and who also teaches Hebrew there, said the classes were a good experience for her child.

“Actually, it prompted conversations at home,” she said. “Because I think it gave our daughter vocabulary to use,”

Giving kids ways to talk about these issues is important, especially when they hear about high-profile national examples where consent is violated, or relationships are far from healthy. Sivan Tarle, the director of middle school at Brandeis S.F., said the work extends outside sex ed classes — like the sessions the school recently had with eighth-graders and teachers that were sparked by recent media stories.

Sivan Tarle
Sivan Tarle

“We’re having really good conversations with faculty and students,” Tarle said.

She said the Senate committee hearings in which Kavanaugh, at that point a nominee for the Supreme Court, was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford brought up a lot of feelings among faculty members.

“And our students were also interested in it, very much so,” she said. “From sixth grade to eighth grade.”

That led to conversations in which boys discussed what makes a good person versus what makes a good man, while girls discussed ways in which they can protect themselves as well as change society. A follow-up conversation involving boys and girls together also was scheduled. Tarle said she was confident the students would use the tense moment for growth.

“They always rise to the occasion,” Tarle said. “Every time.”

Derblich-Milea said she is optimistic that young people are getting it. Every time she asks for questions at the end of a workshop, she hears from boys who say that they’re worried, and who want to know what they can do to make sure they don’t cross the lines.

“That question gives me a lot of hope,” she said.

It means kids are understanding that the building blocks of healthy, happy relationships — at any age — are based on consent, respect and taking care not to violate other people’s boundaries. It’s a silver lining at a time when new stories are emerging every day that highlight the need for consent in sexuality and health education.

“The #MeToo movement has actually had a big effect on the way more people are aware about consent,” Chen said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.